“Ghostbusters” and the Task of a Reboot

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I’m not one of those people who thought the original 1984 Ghostbusters was some kind of sacred film, and I’m certainly not one of the people who spewed vile hatred of the 2016 reboot just because it featured women in the titular roles. But I was one of those people who thought that the premise of a gender-swapped Ghostbusters was a little gimmicky, and I did think that the first trailer Sony released was awful. So overall, my feelings and expectations going to go see the new Ghostbusters movie were somewhere between mixed and non-existent.

Surprisingly, coming out of the theater, I felt satisfied and that I had paid a fair price to see a fun and funny movie.

In the 2016 Ghostbusters, Kristen Wiig is Dr. Erin Gilbert and Melissa McCarthy is Dr. Abby Yates. At Columbia University, Gilbert is trying to attain tenure when the unexpected resurgence in a book about the paranormal she had authored with Yates comes back to threaten her chances at tenure. But when when the sudden appearance of ghosts intrigues them, they’re drawn into a world where their paranormal knowledge is put to use in a fight against ghosts. They find help in Kate McKinnon‘s Dr. Jillian Holtzmann and Leslie Jones‘ Patty Tolan, a subway worker with extensive historical knowledge of New York City.

If you’re one of the many people that were turned off by the trailers for this movie, then rest assured that the movie is surprisingly funny and watchable. The rather terrible jokes from the trailers still exist, but they’re overshadowed by some clever lines and wittier jokes during the many character interaction scenes. I was particularly won over in the beginning when the first lines in the movie mentioned “anti-Irish fencing” and “face bidets”. In fact, many of the best lines in the movie come from back and forth dialogue between all the (admittedly stereotypical) characters and not just the cheap physical humor found in the trailer. Of course there’s still elements of slapstick and crude, cringe-worthy “queef” humor, and it’s definitely not on the same refined level of comedy that Murray, Akyroyd, Ramis and Hudson delivered back in the 80’s, but it’s an enjoyable kind nonetheless.

But while Ghostbusters is quite a funny movie, it lacks a strong central narrative. The actual plot of the movie is fairly nonchalant, straightforward and has all the expected action beats necessary for a summer movie, and glaring plot holes and blatant issues with the script are consistent throughout the film. Several character moments are set up with zero pay off, like the uninspired reason why Dr. Gilbert got interested in the paranormal in the first place or the motivation behind the main villain trying to unleash ghosts on New York City.

However it’s in the disappointing third act that the new Ghostbusters finds its greatest contrast to the original. Where in the original Ghostbusters, the movie’s own internal mythology became more complex and grand, the new movie is sort of just trying to find an excuse for big, colorful CGI set pieces and a finale that glorifies female chauvinism following 120 minutes of dumbed-down, one-note male characters with few redeeming qualities.

In this modern age of reboots, remakes and “re-quels” there often arises the question of what constitutes a “good” version of a reboot/remake. Unfairly or not, these new renditions of old properties are going to be compared to their originals, or older counterparts, and some people have expectations regarding that. Some people are vehemently against the notion in the first place, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a perfect illustration of the lack of new concepts in Hollywood, its lack of “respect” for its own older works and it reinforces just how much Hollywood is kept alive by avoiding risk and going for easy money. On the other hand, despite all of that, people still pay money to see these things. So then other people ask that, if Hollywood is going to be making these reboots, that they at least try to make something more than an obvious nostalgia cash grab.

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For my money, literally and figuratively, a reboot or remake needs to feel like the makers of the movie had some deeper grasp of what made the original so liked in the first place, beyond the surface level memories and catchphrases. Then the makers need to not bury all of those old feelings and ideas beneath unnecessary “eye-catching” moments and modern homogenization. As an example, lets look at another movie in a similar position to Ghostbusters, right down to the years of release: Robocop.

The original Robocop and Ghostbusters were released in 1987 and 1984 respectively. The new Robocop came out in 2014. Both original films are remembered fondly by fans and critics, as both entertaining works of their time and as good films that have withstood the test of time, albeit for different reasons. Robocop is remembered as a biting, hard-edged satire with super intense violence, and Ghostbuster is remembered for its high concept mixture of blue collar work and science fantasy, which was brought together by an amazing cast.

Now the Robocop remake came only two years ago, and I challenge anyone to even remember that it came out. The 2014 reboot failed to make any kind of lasting impression, and that was in addition to not being compared favorably to the original. Its failure was evident before it even released, and hindsight only makes it more distinct. The new Robocop, for one, lost all of the bite that the original possessed. The original might not have been the most subtle satire, but it still took straight aim at Reagan-era capitalism and Cold War paranoia with a sense of moral ambiguity. What does the new one say? That drones are bad, kind of, I think. The original was also one of the most violent movies ever, further punctuating  its satire with equal parts grim reality and cartoonish humor. The new one has bland, toothless CGI action. Finally, the original had an actual, complicated journey for Officer Murphy to regain some semblance of humanity despite his irreversible new life as a machine. The new one never even raises that central question by having Murphy overcome his machine parts through sheer force of human spirit or something, with the only except being the lone good scene where he sees himself deconstructed.

The new Robocop dulled all the unique and memorable aspects of the original, while also adding pointless action and an all-too-familiar “damsel-in-distress” subplot. Basically, the reboot was bad because it took away all the good parts while adding nothing noteworthy of its own. While the new Ghostbusters may be guilty of adding pointless action for a finale, and will certainly be polarising for both fans and critics, it still retained some of the elements of the original. Mainly, that both have a great comedic cast with great chemistry and its humor is derived from how these blue collar and scientifically-oriented characters react to a world of evil ghosts. The tone of the humor might not match the original, but it still achieves mostly the same results. I would still love to spend more time with the new Ghostbusters and take part in their ridiculous adventures.

In the end, a good reboot takes the trappings of the original and allows someone good to also wear them. They will look and feel familiar because of some of the surface elements, but the underlying character is what really sells it.

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